The shutdown scramble: Agencies, federal employees, others brace for a halt in government funding

NORTHAMPTON — Federal workers and welfare program beneficiaries in the Pioneer Valley scrambled this week to shutter research projects, seek out food assistance programs and brace for an indefinite government shutdown that starts at midnight on Saturday.

Some 24,000 federal employees in Massachusetts will go without a paycheck during the shutdown, and more than 125,000 Massachusetts residents will be unable to access the supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the White House reported.

Many are turning to local nonprofits, such as the Northampton Survival Center, to make ends meet, Program Director Sarah Pease said.

“A government shutdown puts fear into people,” said Pease, who fielded calls from several former clients asking if they could return to the Survival Center’s food pantry this week. “They’re looking to fill the gap when other resources fall away.”

Social Security payments will continue during the shutdown, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants should receive their October payments, although if a shutdown continues into November, SNAP payments will come from a $6 billion contingency reserve fund.

“We’ve been getting calls to our office all day,” said U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern one day this week. “How do you pay your mortgage? How do you pay your rent? How do you put groceries on the table? What if your car breaks down? How do you pay for it to be repaired?

“As I try to remind my Republican colleagues — some of whom are cheering for a shutdown — I remind them that this is real life, and real people are adversely impacted,” said McGovern, the ranking member of the House Rules Committee.

McGovern stayed in Washington D.C. last weekend alongside the Rules Committee after Speaker Kevin McCarthy sent lawmakers home because he could not convince enough right-wing Republicans to support a temporary spending measure.

As for WIC, Community Action Pioneer Valley Executive Director Clare Higgins said the nonprofit has money on hand from the state and federal government to continue providing food assistance.

“Our doors will be open on Monday,” Higgins said. “We are doing everything we possibly can do so we have resources to provide services.”

Scientific researchResearchers at the U.S. Geological Survey and Fish & Wildlife Service may miss their window of opportunity to complete federally funded research projects should the shutdown drag on.

“The timing is not good,” said Ken Sprankle, a project leader at the Fish & Wildlife Service’s Sunderland office that monitors fish populations between August and October. “If we can’t go out, we’re missing periods in our sampling timeline.”

The Fish & Wildlife headquarters for the Northeast region is located in Hadley. Officials this week said they had no information to share about how the shutdown would affect employees there. Some 1,000 employees work in the regional headquarters, field offices, national wildlife refuges or fish hatcheries throughout the region’s 13-state territory that stretches from Maine to Virginia.

At the USGS, a team of 915 essential workers will tend to the fish and equipment over the course of the shutdown nationwide, but the agency plans to furlough 4,335 employees, according to its contingency plan. Compensation for another 3,000 employees comes from sources other than the federal government.

Furloughed staff members will not receive payment during the shutdown, although they received back pay following the most recent shutdown that began in 2018 and ended in 2019. In the years that followed, the lab put out messaging on what to do in the event of another shutdown, but when news broke last week that federal agencies would likely grind to a halt in October, many remained uncertain about how to proceed with research projects and public events scheduled at the same time as a potential shutdown.

“We have work that we want to get done,” Sprankle said. “It’s frustrating.”

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, federally funded research is set to continue during the shutdown.

“While there may be temporary funding gaps in existing federal grants, UMass Amherst has historically covered these and waited to be reimbursed by the federal government,” UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said in a statement. “The university has given guidance to researchers with federal funding to continue working unless instructed otherwise. While the university will prioritize continuity of existing research, new grant proposals may need to wait until after the shutdown for submission and review.”

Military and veteransVeterans will still be able to receive their health care in the event of a shutdown, a spokesperson from the Edward P. Boland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds said. They will also have access to other benefits such as compensation, pension, education and housing, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said on Friday.

However, the Leeds regional VA office will be closed, and staff will not be able to conduct outreach to veterans or provide career counseling, transition assistance and cemetery grounds maintenance as usual.

At Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, approximately 600 full-time employees could go on furlough, except for a small group of “mission-essential” positions the Air Force Reserve headquarters had yet to specify as of Friday. Another 1,800 part-time citizen airmen are scheduled to return to the base on Saturday, Oct. 14, for a weekend of drill training, unless the shutdown interferes, according to Chief of Public Affairs Rodney Furr.

Members of the Air Force are familiar with the threat of a shutdown, said Furr, who noted that staff “go through these drills” at the end of every fiscal year.

“Nobody is panicking, nobody is surprised,” Furr said. “It’s just business as normal.”

Local businesses,nonprofitsA government shutdown can have a “multiplier effect” that decreases local businesses’ revenue, said Gerald Epstein, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Federal workers who go without a paycheck may cut back on spending at local shops and restaurants, and there is no back pay for slow business, Epstein said.

Struggling workers or people who rely on WIC may turn to local food pantries and other nonprofits, which have experienced increased demand following July’s floods, Epstein said. Heidi Norton-Smith, executive director of the Northampton Survival Center, fielded calls from five people Friday wondering how to become clients of the food pantry.

“That puts a lot of pressure on these resources that are already under pressure,” Epstein said. “It’s adding fuel to a situation [that] is already on fire.”

If lawmakers do not resolve the shutdown quickly, Epstein warns, “All of this gets much, much worse.”

For the Recorder
Published: 9/29/2023 6:17:54 PM
Modified: 9/29/2023 6:17:07 PM